When a Cosmic Shift Fails: The Power of Vernacular Authority in a New Age Internet

Contesting Authority - Vernacular Knowledge and Alternative Beliefs - Marion Bowman

Robert Glenn Howard [+-]
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Robert Glenn Howard is Director of Digital Studies, Chair of Comparative Literature and Folklore Studies, and Professor in the Department of Communication Arts at the University of Wisconsin - Madison. Most broadly, his research seeks to uncover the possibilities and limits of empowerment through everyday expression on the Internet by focusing on the intersection of individual human agency and participatory performance. His publications include Digital Jesus: The Making of New Christian Fundamentalist Community on the Internet ( New York: NYU Press, 2011) and Network Apocalypse: Visions of the End in an Age of Internet Media (London: Sheffield University Press, 2011).


Folklorists have long recognized and documented New Age folk beliefs. They can be found in everyday talk about meditation and premonitions to stories of spiritual experiences and amateur fortunetelling of all kinds. And, like all folklore in the 21st century, we can easily find these folk beliefs and practices circulating online. In fact, excellent scholarship has now shown how quickly and naturally all common folkloric forms went digital. However, we are just beginning to explore the implications of all this folklore going online. Online communities have empowered us to find other people who share the same interest we do. Today, it is easier share beliefs about spiritual beliefs even as religious expression seems increasingly individualized and idiosyncratic. In these digitally empowered vernacular webs, the authority of shared beliefs can be magnified by the perception that everyone in the online community shares the same beliefs. Online forums dedicated to discussing specific topics offer a good opportunity to observe how powerful vernacular authority can grow in a digitally empowered vernacular web. Here, New Age folk beliefs can be seen to take on the role of vernacular resistance to what is perceived as the unjust dominance by institutions both religious and otherwise, and this form of online folkloric empowerment raises important questions about how we as a society should value the idiosyncratic, anti-institutional, but potentially powerful folk-cultures like that of New Age apocalypticism. Using the computational methods to topically map online New Age forums, I have found the informal discussions revolve around discrete set of diverse but recurring topics. In each of these topics we can see a vernacular resistance to perceived institutional dominance. In discussions of ancient Mayan prophecy, this resistance is obvious in rumors and exchanges of beliefs that specifically assert right knowledge of an this ancient culture that is different from that of the current culture or experts on Mayan history. It is less obvious in discussions of spiritual practices and individual preparation for different kinds of global transformations, but these prepping discourse center on the fundamental belief that the existing institutions both governmental and religious have failed to recognize the fact of an impending spiritual transformation. In each of these as well as many other topics this study is tracking, individuals are using their ability to locate like-minded others and create highly specific webs of vernacular communication to foster a complex and vibrant spiritually infused prepping culture. While this ability to create their own culture is surely a form of empowerment, it also perpetuates a sense in this community of individuals who have right knowledge to which most of us do not have access. Approaching this belief matrix, how can we critically engage this culture? How can we contribute to the larger understanding of folk belief in a digital age?

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Howard, Robert. When a Cosmic Shift Fails: The Power of Vernacular Authority in a New Age Internet. Contesting Authority - Vernacular Knowledge and Alternative Beliefs. Equinox eBooks Publishing, United Kingdom. Oct 2022. ISBN 9781781792377. https://www.equinoxpub.com/home/view-chapter/?id=29217. Date accessed: 14 Apr 2021 doi: 10.1558/equinox.29217. Oct 2022

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